World Social Forum
March 13th – 17th, 2018
Bahia, Salvador, Brazil
Change is in the Air
The 13th annual World Social Forum (WSF) kicked off with marches and celebrations on the 13th of March 2018 in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. This year’s slogan was ‘to resist is to create, to resist is to transform’. And considering Brazil’s current social and political changes that served as a poignant backdrop to the forum, this slogan resonated true to so many Brazilian and Latin American participants. The ongoing controversial trial of former president Lula Da Silva and the public dissatisfaction with the incumbent president who was not democratically elected, Michel Temer, has reverberated something particularly vibrant and urgent about this forum.
Every year the World Social Forum has brought together an impressive amount of activists, social movements, and a variety of civil society organisations. This year was no exception as approximately 50,000 participants took part in a week of activities and workshops aimed at re-imagining a new world which challenges the exploitive and regressive systems of neo-liberal globalization.
The forum has a decentralized and democratized structure. It aims to be an open space where participants can represent their organisations but no one ever speaks on behalf of the forum. This creates ample room for plurality and transparency while in the same vein, causing some disorganization and lack of sufficient coordination at times. But as I spoke to WSF vets through the week I quickly learned that this was to be expected and as one participant pointed out to me “this is one of the most organized WSF’s I have experienced”. So suffice to say, progress is being made.
The world has collectively become disillusioned into thinking that it’s someone else’s job to create a fairer and just world. The World Social Forum’s recognition and appreciation of the power of pooling resources and mobilizing consolidated efforts towards the manifestation of an alternate world system which is just, equal and shared is ground breaking. It’s a show of force in a world that is currently being dominated and inundated with messages of populism, division and self-interest.
The assassination of Marielle Franco, a black Brazilian human rights activist, in the midst of the forum on March 14, made the realities of violence and inequality even more palpable in streets across Brazil. The representation of black Brazilians in the political sphere leaves a lot to be desired. Franco herself became the first black female representative in the liberal Socialism and Liberty Party in 2016. She was a beacon of hope for many historically excluded groups in Brazil and her assassination only put a spotlight on the particular difficulties faced by afro-Brazilians. Salvador, Bahia, where the forum took place has one of the highest populations of afro-Brazilians. Seeing them speak out in outrage was touching and as an African myself, all too familiar. However despite their despair, the people of Brazil, black and otherwise, are making their voices heard across the country in honour of their heroine.
Unfortunately this is not an issue that only Brazil is plagued with. This is why Marielle’s presence and now devastating murder transcended the confines of Brazilian political discourse and inspired activists, politicians and social movements across the globe. Personally, I was devastated by the news of her untimely and unjust death. The kind of devastation that leaves you feeling hopeless and defeated. The kind of devastation that comes from an accumulation of similar incidences and ultimately leaves your soul feeling tarnished. It seems that our greatest hero’s and heroines are consistently stolen from us. From Marielle to Sankara. As a collective, we carry this baggage with us and the wound seems bound to never truly heal as it continues to be brutalized. Her voice, her unapologetic vigor and consistent commitment to systematic change for the upliftment of all people resonated with pain being experienced across the globe. But with healing comes renewed passion and capacity to ensure that her death and the deaths of others are not in vain. We are truly standing on the should of giants and we have a duty and responsibility to continue their work.
She reminds us that it is our job to inspire action. To break the rules which are working against equality, justice and freedom. These ideals are not independent living organisms. If we don’t feed them and actively fight for them, they will parish. This is what happened to democracy. We fell asleep at the wheel and thought it could drive itself, but it can’t. I think more than ever; the world needs rule breakers. That is in essence what innovation means to me. The audacity to question and challenge the status quo and introduce new and fresh solutions which will benefit humanity.
The people have the power
I’m an avid believer and advocator of political and social participation, however participation in and of itself will not save us. A more holistic approach to participation will be needed in order to redirect our new desired development paths. Aptly put by John Gaventa (2004) “Participatory governance is not simply achieved from above with new policy statements, but requires multiple strategies of institutional change, capacity building, and behavioural change”. This means reforming what we mean by participation to take it beyond its current form which has been reduced to empty token procedures which yield no real results or consequence.
Effective participation is directly dependent on the strength of the citizens, and in this case strength means intellectual leverage and awareness. Without this we have ill-informed citizens making ill informed decisions and reaping ill-informed results. This is why many participatory mechanisms – not only in the global South – are becoming obsolete and merely ceremonial. A critical mass of enlightened and informed citizens who, when called to engage and participate will not be reduced to passive bystanders but focal drivers of the narrative. And ultimately this is what the WSF is striving for – this is the bottom-line.
However if we want real change, the change that Marielle fought for and died for, we will have to do more than this. The WSF is a great start but we need a deliberate systems approach which can dismantle the current power structures at play.